By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
They think the damage done to the Tampa Palms synagogue is more than prankish, suggesting it is the work of anti-Semites.
TAMPA PALMS — It started with a sign.
Marking the construction site where New Tampa’s first Jewish synagogue would be, the “Temple Ohev Shalom” wooden sign was knocked to the ground. The construction company sign next to it was left untouched.
Then came a big swastika, among other kinds of graffiti, drawn on the back door of the unfinished structure.
Then someone walked by the site while temple members were setting up tents outside for a Sukkot ceremony and commented that it was “too bad” that the building was going up, said Dr. Mark Weissman, Temple Ohev Shalom’s president, who witnessed the comment.
The latest slap in the face came slightly more than a week ago, when vandals stuck garden hoses inside the temple, turned them on and left water running for hours. The flooding left what appeared to be thousands of dollars in damage and a fear among the 8-year-old congregation that perhaps these incidents were not pranks.
“I think we’re being targeted by people in Tampa Palms who don’t want to see a synagogue in their neighborhood,” said Craig Maurer, president-elect of the temple, which was scheduled to open Aug. 4. “We’ve really had problems since the day we broke ground here.”
Those problems, Maurer said, included battles with the Tampa Palms Owners’ Association over requirements to build a 6-foot wall or hedge around the property, shielding the temple from surrounding homeowners’ view.
This isn’t the first time that the association has had deed restriction conflicts with a place of worship. In November 1998, the association tried to stop Grace Episcopal Church from using tents for a Christmas tree lot. The two sides ended up in court before the association relented and allowed white tents and advertising signs.
Maurer said the association is taking a hard line with the synagogue.
“They’re requiring us to do more than we should have to do, including a huge amount of financial requirements,” he said.
Homeowners association president Bill Edwards said the association would require any church or commercial structure to do the same and even modified the wall requirements to lessen expenses for the temple. Instead of walling off the entire property, the association is asking that temple leaders put a hedge where the parking lot is a few feet from people’s homes, Edwards said.
After the history of crimes against the temple, Maurer and Weissman think putting up a wall or barrier would compromise the temple members’ safety, because the view from outside the property would be obscured.
The association also offered to put a hold on the hedge requirement until the temple’s security issues are reviewed.
“Really, if (Maurer) thinks they’re a target of anti-Semitism, I’d be horrified if that were true,” Edwards said. “But he’d better present the evidence.”
On Friday, Larry McKinnon of Tampa police said the department was pursuing some leads but had not arrested anyone.
Maurer and Weissman wanted police investigators to classify the vandalism as hate crimes and were frustrated that some have linked the latest incident to one that happened about the same time at Fowler Avenue’s Greco Middle School, also involving hoses.
“Ours was strictly a malicious, damaging type of act,” Weissman said. “There were no beer cans or cigarette butts lying around. These acts have been done by people who have to know what the building is and have to be old enough to know what it is.”
Temple Ohev Shalom representatives reported the incidents to the Tampa Jewish Federation as well as the regional Anti-Defamation League office.
“We don’t know if there’s a connection between this vandalism and the graffiti of the past,” said Andrew Rosenkranz, the league’s Florida regional director. “When this happens to anyone, it is traumatic and it is hurtful. And it’s important for the community to come together any time there’s an act of hatred or anti-Semitism.”